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The Three Lives of Dan James : In a Los Angeles Barrio, the Elderly Screenwriter Found an Alter Ego and a Pen Name; Now, His Literary Voice Is Finding a Wider Audience

June 19, 1988|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Daniel James led three lives. He needed all of them to make a bid for immortality.

One was his "real" self, affluent Ivy Leaguer, screenwriter, playwright, sometime Communist, volunteer social worker and--at the end of his life--unmasked novelist.

But inside the aging, dark-humored radical, a street-wise teen-age boy also lived and roamed the East Los Angeles barrio--boosting a car, blasting a dinner chicken in the neck with a .45 pistol, making mostly wrong moves with the girls and redecorating the "pure satin-finish plaster" of a Bank of America branch with graffiti.

Closer to the surface, there was James' artistic alter ego, Danny Santiago, the medium between the old gringo and the rebellious kid. James adopted the Santiago persona when he wrote, distorting his identity and his 6-foot-6 frame as he bent over his ancient portable typewriter to tap out the adventures of Rudy Medina Jr., a.k.a. Chato, the hard-luck hero of the novel "Famous All Over Town." And Danny Santiago was the pen name James imprinted on this, his only novel, published when he was 73.

Prize-Winning Novel

Greeted by glowing reviews in 1983, "Famous All Over Town" won a prestigious prize for first novels but failed in the bookstores, selling fewer than 10,000 hard-cover copies, according to Carl Brandt, James' New York agent. At the time, few knew that Santiago--supposedly a tough hombre from a mean neighborhood--had a Broadway musical to his credit, a spectacular house at the ocean near Carmel and a social life replete with movie stars and literary giants.

"Famous All Over Town" probably would have been quickly forgotten if it had not gained a second life, spawned by the notoriety and controversy of James' self-styled "mild little deception," revealed in 1984 by friend and fellow writer John Gregory Dunne. As a result, this coming-of-age novel, which has been compared with J. D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," probably is better known as an object of debate than for its content. Predictably, when Dan James--and Danny and Rudy --died last month at 77, his passing was marked by obituaries that recalled the storm over the Anglo who had assumed a brown skin.

But like its author, "Famous All Over Town" may be taking on a third life that could transcend its earlier incarnations. It is the life James wanted for the book--a work of fiction standing alone, independent of its creator and the arguments about his phony ethnic background and the validity of his perception.

Read in Schools

Although it never came close to a best-seller list, the novel has been continuously in print as a trade paperback for more than four years. It has gained a small foothold in Los Angeles high school and college classes where it is enthusiastically taught to small numbers of students every year--by teachers who believe the novel is a too-rare commodity, a faithful portrayal of the modern urban Latino experience.

For instance, Roberto Cantu, an associate professor of Chicano studies at Cal State L.A., said he has used the book in a Mexican-American literature class for about the last three years, even though "the novel was not accepted by many Chicano critics because he was not a Chicano . . . . In fact a colleague of mine and I almost ended our friendship over it." Cantu said he has remained a fan of the book despite his surprise about the real identity of the author. "I was one of the duped ones. I would have bet that he (the author) was a Chicano from East L.A., about 28, 29 years old."

But since Danny Santiago was really someone else, Cantu hopes the novel will help "destroy the myth that only Chicanos can write about Chicanos," he said. Cantu added that he will try to organize a one-day conference of Latino academics this fall to discuss the novel and its current status among Latino intellectuals.

At Roosevelt High School, English teacher Leticia Andujo estimated that about 200 of her students have read the novel over the past three years. For some, it has been the first book they ever finished reading, she said. "They're amazed that they've been able to read a book," she added, explaining that the character Chato might well be one of their friends or acquaintances. Ironically, Andujo said she doesn't reveal the true identity of the author to her classes but when some students have found out on their own "overall it hasn't taken away from the book."

Perhaps more tellingly, former residents of Clover Street--the neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles that fired James' imagination--eagerly assisted the author, opening their homes and lives to James and his wife, Lilith, during the 25 years or so the couple were volunteer social workers in the barrio. And when James was polishing his manuscript, some helped by checking it for accuracy in such matters as street talk and graffiti.

Bobby Verdugo, a 37-year-old bus driver-dispatcher for the City of Montebello, recalled his first impressions of the novel:

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